Bo Hanging Coffins

Halloween in China is a fun time. People have heard about it, but they don’t really know what it’s about.  “Oh, that American holiday, right?”

They’ve seen kids on TV going to their neighbors’ houses to get candy, but they don’t truly understand what happens.  “Do people really dress up?” “Is it ok to play a trick on the kids rather than give them a treat?” Can you imagine what would happen to your house if you did that?

For my first Halloween in China I decided to go all out.

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My students loved doing a mask making activity in class

The Plan

First on my list was a day trip to the mysterious Bo Hanging Coffins.  I’d heard about them from exactly one person, and my internet search turned up a paragraph from an outdated Lonely planet book.  With the Great Firewall blocking western media sites and YouTube, I had little to go on.

I knew that the Bo were and ancient minority people that had lived in the area thousands of years ago and had gone extinct about 400 years before. They placed their dead in coffins made from hollowed out tree trunks and hung them on the side of cliffs.  No one knows why, but it’s possibly to keep the dead close to the gods or keep them away from scavengers.  Either way, they wood that has been used to hang the coffins is quickly rotting and more coffins fall each year.  I heard that their were only maybe 30 left that could be seen by the public.  I wanted to see them before it’s was too late.

So with little to go on, I did what I often did in uncertain situations: I asked my Chinese tutor how to get there.  Three phone calls later she had enlisted a mutual friend, Robin, who owns a car. Robin doesn’t drive, so he made a call to hire a driver, Monkey, to pick me and two other friends up and drive us all to the coffins for the creepiest Halloween ever. What could go wrong?

At this point, I had been in Yibin, Sichuan for less than two months, so when I told Robin (who only speaks Chinese) there would two pick-ups that morning- my friends in town at 7:30 am and me outside of town at 8:00 am- I should have known there would be confusion.  After five more phone calls, lots of new words that I couldn’t understand, and a sprint around the parking lot to find the car, we were on the road at a much later than planned 9:30 am.

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The smog was intense as we drove to the see the coffins

The road to Luòbiǎo was in disrepair with giant potholes, twisting turns and ugly factories emitting huge grey clouds of smog lining the way. It felt like we were driving through a horror movie set. Though Robin said it should have been about three hours, we spent well over five, skipping lunch and making only one stop to refuel. Luckily, my Halloween care package had arrived the day before and I shared my two small packages of Nutter Butters with the group. By the time we pulled into the valley we were starving and ready to get out of the car.

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Our first glimpse of coffins- these probably survived because they weren’t hung from the cliff

The Coffins

The valley was bizarre. There was literally no one there. It’s eerie to find a place deserted in China, an even eerier when you’re there to see skeletons.  Next to the sign for the entrance is a small snack stand that I can’t imagine anyone ever visits.  It’s the kind of place where you buy a snack that’s probably expired just because you feel bad for the elderly man sitting behind the counter all day. He was so surprised to see us (three foreigners!) that he called the woman over who has keys to the tiny museum.  Note: Unless you can read Chinese characters like coffin, mummies, tombs, ritual and preservation, I highly recommend you skip the museum and just head out to see the cliff instead.  Though, there was a mummy in there, which was pretty cool.

With my stale crackers in hand, we climbed the stairs leading into a cave overlooking the coffins. There aren’t many coffins left at this point; the majority has fallen to the ground crashing and destroying the skeletal remains inside. Everywhere we went we felt like we were going to step on bones, or, even more exciting, find a coffin lying on the ground.  We didn’t, and instead we checked out the empty cave and made our way back down.  A bit disappointed at the lack of attractions and the thick smog, we decided to drive through the rest of valley playing spot-the-hanging-coffin.

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The remaining coffins are those that are protected from the elements by the rock face

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The support posts of fallen coffins are still visible

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No filters: This is what air pollution looks like in rural China

A Celebration in the Valley

As we drove away from the entrance to the cave, we heard loud noise coming from the only road cutting through the valley. As we continued slowly to avoid big dips in the road, we came to a huge mass of people dressed in white.  A large drum was set up, as was a karaoke machine and people were sitting at tables drinking and eating.  This, is apparently where all of the people in town were.  People seemed oblivious to the only car on the road and Monkey kept having to stop and let groups of seemingly drunken people cross the street.  Some people, looking in at the three foreigners, were shocked while others were so absorbed in the revelry that they didn’t even notice us.  I was a little worried that the ones who did notice us would try to get us to come out and have a drink.  I couldn’t understand what the driver was saying about the crowds so I asked Robin if he knew what festival we were driving into.

He informed me that we had just crashed our first funeral.

After getting as far away from the funeral as possible the views picked up and we could see more coffins hanging in the distance. It really was a unique experience. For a minute, I almost wished we had brought camping equipment, but then I remembered the creepy funeral (that seemed like a celebration) in the middle of valley and instead made sure my door was locked.

Content that we had such an incredible day in the valley, but dreading the long drive back, we hit the road back to Yibin and promptly got a flat tire.

Lesson for the trip: I should have packed more snacks.

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Monkey and Robin fix our flat tire as my friends joke about being stranded and hungry

What to go to the Bo Hanging Coffins too?

This is a true, off-the-beaten-path destination.  I don’t recommend driving unless you’re familiar with the area and have a spare tire, tool kit, and several packages of Nutter Butters with you.

To get there by public transportation, take a bus from Yíbīn 宜宾 to Gǒngxiàn 珙县.  Buses leave when full and can take up to three hours. At Gǒngxiàn station, take a second bus to Luòbiǎo 洛表.  This leg of the trip can take anywhere from 2-3 hours.  At Luòbiǎo station, you’ll need to either walk  the remaining 2 miles or take a cab (if possible) to the entrance of the valley. Gǒngxiàn is larger than Luòbiǎo and has more options for guesthouses if you need to spend the night.

If you’ve made it all the way to rural, Southern Sichuan, why not head to the Bamboo Sea too?



One thought on “Bo Hanging Coffins

  1. Pingback: Visiting the Ya’an Pandas | Better By Travel

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